Tag: United Nations (page 2 of 2)

Edward James Olmos at the United Nations

Watch the entire proceedings of the Battlestar Galactica cast’s visit to the United Nations here.


The Colonial Fleet Colonizes UN Headquarters

I kid you not. The Chicago Tribune reports the following:

“On March 17, there will be a “Battlestar” retrospective at the U.N. in New York and a panel discussion of how the show examined issues such as “human rights, children and armed conflict, terrorism, human rights and reconciliation and dialogue among civilizations and faith,” according to Sci Fi.

The “Battlestar” contingent on the panel will consist of executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, as well as stars Mary McDonnell (who plays president Laura Roslin on the show) and Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama).

UN representatives on the panel are Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Robert Orr, assistant secretary-general for policy planning, executive office of the Secretary-General.

The panel will be moderated by “Battlestar” fan Whoopi Goldberg.”

Comment away.

P.S. Hat tip to Greg Niermeyer, Polsci 121-A student and bigger geek than me.


Rap(e)in(g) International Law

The Guardian reports a great triumph for women’s rights at the United Nations Security Council, which has recently passed a new resolution condemning sexual violence as a war crime and a component of genocide.

I’m thinking: how does this new resolution go beyond SCR 1325 of 2000, which called on governments not only to “respond to” but to actually “prevent” sexual violence? Since rape has already been recognized as a war crime since at least 1949, and since it is now also recognized, when perpetrated by an agent of the state, as torture (in the ICTY statute), as genocide (in the Akayesu ruling of the ICTR), and as a crime against humanity or genocide under certain circumstances (in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court), what exactly does it mean for the UN Security Council to, again, be claiming this is so and for the media to report this as “news”?

One thing it may mean is that the Bush Administration is seizing upon a symbolic opportunity to appear to be championing women’s rights and international rule of law.
Those who have followed the development of gender jurispridence in the UN system ought to see through this, however. In fact, with its excessive focus on rape as genocide (which obscures the continuum of violence faced by women not just at the hands of enemy soldiers but indeed from their own men in wartime); in its emphasis on women, rather than rape victims of both sexes (yes, men are victims of sexual violence too – surely Abu Ghraib drove that home); and in its watered down language (UNSCR 1820 claims rape “can” be a war crime, whereas earlier documents state that it is) this resolution could even be a step backward.

A genuine step forward would not involve more pretty language after almost a decade of gaps in implementation. It would involve action.

What UNSCR 1820 does, however, is to securitize war rape. In other words, this resolution is not about promoting women’s rights. It is about governments recognizing – at least in theory – that systematic sexual violence undermines not just women’s rights but governments’ own security interests:

“Sexual violence, when used or commissioned as a tactic of war in order to deliberately target civilians or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations, can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security, affirms in this regard that effective steps to prevent and respond to such acts of sexual violence can significantly contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, and expresses its readiness, when considering situations on the agenda of the Council, to, where necessary, adopt appropriate steps to address widespread or systematic sexual violence.”

Whether this is apalling or heartening depends on your theoretical perspective.

Full text of the UNSCR 1820 can be found here.

A helpful recent overview on rape in international criminal law is here.

Additional resources on gender crimes in international criminal law and jurisprudence can be found at the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice website.


UNAMI Report on Iraq: Dire, Grave Crises

On October 11, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) issued its 11th report (warning: pdf) on the human rights situation in Iraq.

The report is filled with bad news — and not much good news.

For example, the “dire” situation in Iraq poses “devastating consequences for the civilian population….

Daily life for the average Iraqi civilian remains extremely precarious. The violence remains in large part indiscriminate…. UNAMI’s findings, based on its monitoring and research activities, suggest that the human rights situation in Iraq remains grave.”

New insurgent-related violence is exploding in Kurdistan and millions of Iraqis have fled the country:

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that some 2.2 million Iraqis are currently refugees abroad, around half of whom are in Syria.

Even more are internally displaced:

Inside Iraq, the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq, Cluster F (Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Durable Solutions) estimates the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to be over one million, in addition to more than 1.2 million remaining displaced or transferred before 2006. Taking into account the many families that failed or were unable to register as IDPs with the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society or UN agencies through their local partners, the overall extent of displacement is likely to have been underestimated.

There’s still more bad news.

For instance, the Iraqi and US governments come under attack for their secrecy.

UNAMI regrets that for this reporting period, it was again unable to persuade the Government of Iraq to release data on casualties compiled by the Ministry of Health and its other institutions. UNAMI continues to maintain that making such data public is in the public interest.

…US authorities still do not see fit to allow public monitoring of MNF detention facilities by independent human rights monitors, including those of UNAMI.

…UNAMI sought on several occasions to obtain overall mortality figures from Iraqi official sources, notably the Ministry of Health and its related institutions. UNAMI also urged the reversal of the ban imposed in February 2007 by Government of Iraq representatives on the release of this data.

On the “hearts and minds” issue, UNAMI reported scores of documented cases of US military attacks killing innocent civilian bystanders. The US military just released files about 100s of such attacks.

Moreover, a substantial part of the report is about the status of the very large number of detainees held in Iraq by various authorities. The report explores various judicial rights — and even the death penalty.


UN poll

Parade magazine’s straw poll asks: “Does the UN still matter?”

Right now, the vote is running just about 60/40.

That’s 59% no, 41% yes, as of this moment.

While more scientific polling also reveals a lot of skepticism about the UN’s ability to work well, public polling results also typically indicate significant public support for making the UN work better.

Update 6/30/07: It’s 72% no, 28% yes tonight.


The Crash that Launched a Million Deaths

On 6 April 1994 someone shot down a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira at it attempted to land at Kigali Airport. Habyarimana’s death sparked waves of killings by Hutu extremists, the Interahamwe militia, and eventually significant numbers of opportunistic collaborators. They targeted not only ethnic Tutsi but also Hutu moderates, particularly supporters of the Arusha Peace Accords. Hundreds of thousands died in the fastest genocide in history; an excess of human remains choked Rwanada’s rivers. The genocide ended only when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) defeated the government and took control of the country.

Scholars and observers have long speculated about who shot down the plane. Suspicions generally fell on Hutu extremists–and perhaps even the Akazu (“Little House”) of cronies and relatives surrounding Habyarimana and his wife. In other words, those who stood to lose the most from the accords killed the President and initiated a genocide to maintain their hold on power.

But not according to former UN investigator Michael Hourigan, who tells the BBC that the UN halted his investigation into Habyarimana’s death. The reason: he was close to pinning responsibility on Paul Kagame: head of the RPF and now the President of Rwanda. Michael Doyle reports:

The former UN investigator who has now spoken to the BBC, Michael Hourigan, worked on several aspects of the genocide in 1996 and 1997.

He successfully prosecuted a number of Hutu leaders responsible for the mass killings, but also found witnesses who alleged that the Tutsi Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda, was involved in the plot to shoot down the plane when he was a rebel leader.

Mr Hourigan told the BBC from his home in Australia that senior UN officials instructed him to stop his enquiries.

“None of it makes sense,” he said.

“That all of a sudden when we get the breakthrough and we start to actually get people coming forward saying: ‘We were involved in the crash, you know, I fired a rocket which took the president’s aircraft down’ – when we’re getting those people with that sort of quality information coming forwards and then we shut it down.”

“I mean it didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t make sense to me now.” ….

Senior UN officials say the enquiry into the plane crash was stopped because it was not within the mandate of the genocide tribunal. Mr Hourigan strongly disagrees.

A spokesman for the then chief prosecutor of the tribunal, Louise Arbour, who is now the UN human rights commissioner, said she would not comment on Mr Hourigan’s complaints because she had a duty of confidentiality.

Diplomats say Rwanda would almost certainly have stopped cooperating with the tribunal if its investigations targeted Mr Kagame.

The diplomats add that the foreign policies of western nations towards Rwanda are partly driven by guilt because the international community failed to stop the mass killings.

President Kagame has denied involvement in shooting down the plane, but adds that he does not regret the death of the former Rwandan leader, who he describes as a dictator.

This is a pretty big deal.

When the France’s anti-terrorism judge accused Kagame in November of 2006, it was easy to dismiss his claims. The French government backed the Hutu regime and doesn’t like Kagame’s Anglophone orientation. Chris McGreal of The Guardian explains the case for French bias before he concludes that Hutu extremists were likely responsible for Habyarimana’s death.

When the genocide started, Paris made no secret of where its loyalties lay. The French military flew in ammunition for government forces and, in the following weeks, a stream of Hutu officials travelled to Paris, including Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, who was later convicted of genocide by the international tribunal, for meetings with President François Mitterrand and the French prime minister. Even as the mass graves filled across Rwanda, Paris engineered the delivery of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the Hutu regime from Egypt and South Africa.

Africa has traditionally been considered such a special case in Paris that France’s policy is run out of the presidency. At the time, the “Africa cell” was headed by Mitterrand’s son, Jean-Christophe, a close friend of the Habyarimanas. He later said that there could not have been a genocide because “Africans are not that organised”. France’s president did not deny what had happened, but took a view no less racist: “In such countries, genocide is not too important.”

Hourigan’s accusations suggest, however, that there is more to this than Francophone-sphere political maneuvering.

Let us suppose that Hourigan’s sources are unreliable. I still find it troubling that the UN might have shut down his investigation rather than rattle cooperation from the Kagame government. This sort of behavior brings back memories of how higher-level UN officials behaved immediately before and after the genocide broke out.

At the same time, post-conflict justice must always be tempered by pragmatism. Peace may not be worth any price, but it seldom comes cheap. And no one should shed any tears for Habyarimana.


The Importance of HST

Kofi Annan gave his “farewell speech” yesterday, choosing a very interesting and symbolic location for the address–the Truman Library in Missouri. As a good farewell speech should, it crystallizes the wisdom of a career of international civil service and provides a call to action to those who will carry on in his stead. What I found most interesting, though, was the location and theme of the speech and how it took a very nuanced approach to the United States. (full text of speech here).

To really get where I’m going with this, my reaction to the speech was shaped by my one of my current pressing projects–putting together my syllabus for my course next semester on “Hegemony and US Foreign Policy in the 21st Century.” So, I’m now on the look-out for anything talk talks about US hegemony, with an eye toward the constitutive power of the US to define the international order, not just regulate it.

Annan seems to really appreciate this in his speech. He picked the Truman Library because:

Truman’s name will for ever be associated with the memory of far-sighted American leadership in a great global endeavor. And you will see that every one of my five lessons brings me to the conclusion that such leadership is no less sorely needed now than it was sixty years ago.

In particular, US leadership.

As President Truman said, “the responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate the peoples of the world.” He showed what can be achieved when the US assumes that responsibility. And still today, none of our global institutions can accomplish much when the US remains aloof. But when it is fully engaged, the sky’s the limit….

You Americans did so much, in the last century, to build an effective multilateral system, with the United Nations at its heart. Do you need it less today, and does it need you less, than 60 years ago?

Surely not. More than ever today Americans, like the rest of humanity, need a functioning global system through which the world’s peoples can face global challenges together. And in order to function, the system still cries out for far-sighted American leadership, in the Truman tradition.

I hope and pray that the American leaders of today, and tomorrow, will provide it.

I think Annan articulates a powerful, a very powerful, point here. We live in a system designed by the United States, reflecting certain American Ideals, put in place to manage the common international welfare because, as has been the case since 1945, “In today’s world, the security of every one of us is linked to that of everyone else.” Truman used US hegemony to build the UN system as the global system for addressing–defining and then regulating–issues of political and economic (through the Bretton Woods component of it) security.

The system was designed as a style of hegemonic stability, and it works, as a famous scholar once said, because the US acts as the stabilizer. When the US embraces this role, the system can function and maybe even have a chance to flourish. When the US shirks this role, the system drifts toward chaos. US leadership is so key because the alternative is in fact chaos– there is no alternative order out there at the moment. The US may have a number of challengers and detractors, but none of them seek to replace the role of the US as system manager. China, Europe, or Al-Queada may all chafe under aspects of US rules, but none of them are yet able to provide a global currency, for example.

The Bush Administration has been a notable critic of the UN system, and has run a great deal of US Foreign Policy outside and counter to that system. That harms the system, and, most importantly, leaves nothing in its place.Hence Annan’s call for the US to resume its leadership role. He’s not critical of the US nor the role that the US plays, he’s critical of the way the US acts on the international stage. He sees the potential of an US active and engaged in the UN system and wants us all to realize it.

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Conflating Means and Ends?

The debate on the UN Human Rights Commission continues.

Patrick responds to my critique of his post, so now I respond in kind.

Patrick’s first set of arguments make two key points. First, the current system doesn’t shame anyone, because odious regimes get to sit on the Commission. Second, that denying states membership on the Commission because of their human-rights records would only provide opportunities for “rhetorical coercion” if “if a) membership were desirable in itself and b) sufficient pressure could be mounted to deny states membership on this basis.”

These are excellent reasons to reform or significantly change the current system. Unfortunately for Patrick’s position, they are also reasons why the hypocrisy of specific members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission cannot provide human-rights advocates with sufficient resources to mount successful efforts to “rhetorically coerce” miscreant states. If the election to the Commission is understood by everyone to be meaningless, I can’t see how Libya is going to care if Human Rights Watch points out the irony of allowing Libya to make judgements about the human-rights record of other states.

Patrick suggests that the Commission might serve to socialize member states. Here again we run into the basic problem: it isn’t doing that right now, so why would we expect it to do that in the future?

I am, in fact, implicitly suggesting two policy options. One is that we reform the procedures to require some sort of quasi-neutral certification for states who wish to join the Commission. While imperfect, this might actually create a reputational cost for human-rights abusers. It would also allow the Commission to make judgments about whether a state is in compliance with various articles of international human-rights law that other states and domestic audiences might take seriously.

I agree that this would foreclose any “socialization” effects of being on the commission for the worst human-rights abusers. But, honestly, given that (1) there are no major benefits conferred from membership now (except for the propaganda purposes of abusive states), (2) that the most odious regimes have very strong domestic interests in continuing their practices, and (3) that the Commission does not place important officials of members states in an environment of dense interaction coupled with relative isolation from other social pressures, the Commission doesn’t have the structural characteristics that make socialization a likely outcome of membership.

The other policy option is to adopt something along the lines of what’s been proposed, i.e., the Human Rights Council. I’m coming around to the view that, implemented properly, this is not a bad idea. I’ll explain why in the context of responding to Patrick’s other arguments.

Patrick argues that the three-stage process I describe – candidacy, vetting, followed by election or non-election – wouldn’t

be rhetorical coercion any more; it would be good old-fashioned carrot-and-stick bargaining, appealing to self-interest (“do a better job with human rights and we’ll put you on the Council”) rather than trying to close off possible courses of action by rendering them illegitimate, which is what rhetorical coercion tries to do.

I can understand developing an ideal-typical construction of “rhetorical coercion” that separates it from material incentives for the purpose of academic analysis. What I can’t abide by is the idea that, in the actual world of politics, acts of rhetorical coercion cannot, and do not, involve the use of “good old-fashioned carrots and sticks.” Put more simply, why in the world would we not want to couple the two in order to get more effective compliance with human-rights regimes? I also think Patrick misses a crucial point: the three-stage process I describe does involve “rhetorical coercion.” It does so at the vetting stage. “So, Libya, you want to be a member of the Commission. How do you justify the murder of journalists who criticize the government?”

Indeed, we might maximize these kinds of benefits by establishing a Human Rights Council. Not only would its very exclusivity mean that membership would garner more benefits than the current order – in terms of the prestige conferred on its members both in the international community and with their domestic populations – but it would facilitate the kind of rhetorical coercion I just described.

There’s an additional pragmatic benefit. The states most likely to respond to both the socialization effects of membership (and to be vulnerable to rhetorical coercion) are precisely those that are liberal democracies or transitional democracies. Think about it for a second. They would be operating in a recognized peer group whose opinions they would be more inclined to take seriously. When that peer group pronounces (in an official, collective capacity), for example, that the US treatment of detainees violates international human-rights standards, it would have more effect than if the current Commission does.

When it comes down to it, the impact of any of these arrangements on human-rights compliance is likely to be marginal, but the chances of shifting the behavior of, for instance, Libya under the current system are less than the chances of changing, for instance, US behavior under a reformed system. While the overall gains from the latter change are smaller, their probability is sufficiently greater that I think we’d see a net improvement in global human rights.

Patrick’s next argument is that I misunderstand the nature of the Commission. In essence, he writes that is more akin to a jury than to a Department of Justice, and so my claim that gross human-rights abusers can’t execute their duties is misguided. He repeats his objection that

it seems to be a sub-species of the Donatist argument I critiqued in my first post: that only the virtuous can do good things. I am very uncomfortable assigning the label “good” to any actor, whether an individual human being or an artificial person like a state; I am much more comfortable assigning that label to specific actions. And in my experience actors of all kinds are capable of all kinds of actions, good and bad alike.

Patrick is one of my closest friends, and he is one of the few people I would label a “genius,” so I hope he doesn’t mind my responding that he is being hopelessly naïve.

The reason we cannot expect Libya, Sudan, or Tunisia to serve as effective “jurors” is because they have extremely strong incentives not to condemn, or adequately condemn, others for engaging in the same sort of activities they routinely engage in. The members states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, developed a well-deserved reputation for resisting any attempts by outsiders – let alone their own organization – to condemn Myanmar (Burma). Why? Because they worried about opening the door to inquiry into their own mixed record on human rights. Same problem.

Given this, I just can’t see the parallel between seating a representative of, say, a genocidal state on the Commission and appointing a life-tenure justice to the Supreme Court.

Let’s cut to the chase: Patrick argues that,

Human rights violations are terrible things, but even worse, I’d posit, is a self-righteous United States of America standing astride the world firmly convinced that it is acting according to the dictates of Right and Truth. What bothers me about such a situation is that there is virtually no effective way to oppose such an empire, since it monopolizes both capabilities and justifications; fanatics are dangerous, and fanatics with massive military machines and nuclear weapons are even more dangerous. And in the case of the United States, we are confronted with the basic historical fact that the United States has always thought of itself as divinely justified. As long as no one else affirms this, some breathing room can be bought. But if we institutionalize this principle of divine election, how then could any effective opposition be mounted?

First, given the choice, I’d reluctantly assent to “a self-righteous United States of America standing astride the world firmly convinced that it is acting according to the dictates of Right and Truth” if it meant ending the genocide, genital mutilation, government-created famines, torture, child slavery, mass rapes, torture, cutting off of hands and limbs, and other ubiquitous acts of death, destruction, and sadism that characterize our world. I’m as critical of American self-pretensions as anyone, but I do have a bottom line on what I know happens every minute and every second in the world around me.

Second, the practical answer to this problem is easy. Make sure that the Human Rights Council is implemented with genuine, if restricted, multilateralism. There’s a lot in this debate that reminds me of a very insightful comment Sheri Berman made at Georgetown this spring while presenting a paper on the intellectual and practical history of social democracy. Sheri pointed out that the problem with contemporary Social Democrats is that they’ve lost sight of their core philosophical and political ideals; they spend their time now simply defending the laws and policies that were the legacy of earlier social-democratic governments and movements, ones that may no longer fit current conditions. Let’s not defend the status-quo simply because it is a legacy of an order we applaud: there’s no reason we can’t implement new architectures, or reform existing ones, if we make sure they are implemented in ways consistent with the same animating vision of world politics.

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Continuing the debate on the UNHRC

Dan raises some important points in his response to my post expressing some skepticism about the Congressional Task Force’s recommendation to eliminate the United Nations Human Rights Commission and replace it with a democracies-only Human Rights Council operating outside of UN control. After considering his arguments I remain convinced that the Task Force’s proposal is a bad idea, even though the present system is certainly a flawed one. Replacing this flawed system with the proposed Human Rights Commission would, in my opinion, make things worse rather than better. It would make it harder to promote human rights globally without resorting to coercive force, and would also contribute to what I would argue is the biggest problem facing international politics today: the dangerous spectacle of an overwhelmingly powerful United States that is convinced that it is acting according to universal right.

Let me take up Dan’s points directly before re-stating my most important reservations about the Task Force’s proposal.

First, Dan is skeptical that shaming can work for a human rights abuser seated on the Commission, because that state would be more likely to understand their election as “evidence that their human rights abuses are insufficient to stigmatize them.” If having a good human rights record were actually a criterion of membership on the Commission, then this would be a reasonable conclusion for the state to draw. But as far as I know, under the present system it is not the case that one has to be an exemplary adherent of human rights norms to be elected to the Commission, otherwise Libya, Sudan, etc. would never have been elected. So at the moment, no special grace is bestowed by being elected to the Commission; this would not be the case under the proposed new Council.

Second, Dan suggests that rhetorical coercion would work best if states were denied membership on the basis of their human rights record. But I’m not sure that this is the case. Denying a state membership unless they adhered to certain standards would only work if a) membership were desirable in itself and b) sufficient pressure could be mounted to deny states membership on this basis. This wouldn’t be rhetorical coercion any more; it would be good old-fashioned carrot-and-stick bargaining, appealing to self-interest (“do a better job with human rights and we’ll put you on the Council”) rather than trying to close off possible courses of action by rendering them illegitimate, which is what rhetorical coercion tries to do. And the carrot-and-stick approach would also presume the existence of precisely the thing that the Commission is set up to achieve: a universal agreement on and assent to human rights norms. If everyone already thought that human rights were a good thing, we wouldn’t need a Human Rights Commission. Instead, we have a situation in which there is a lot of formal assent to human rights norms together with a lot of violation of those norms in practice, which strikes me as a perfect opportunity to engage in rhetorical coercion.

Third, Dan argues that I conflate membership on the Commission with voice opportunities more generally. While Dan’s certainly right that states can bring up human rights issues in other forums, and participate in broader debates about human rights, their ability to do so does not present as many opportunities for rhetorical coercion as membership on the Commission would. Members of the Commission are charged to “examine, monitor and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories…or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide.” This institutional charge makes their hypocrisy even more apparent; the state has been placed into a role that highlights its own human rights record, increasing the opportunities for others to try to shame the state into compliance.

Fourth — and this may be the most profound disagreement between Dan and myself on this issue — Dan argues that human rights abusers can’t be trusted to effectively monitor or enforce human rights abuses. This suggests that Dan regards the Human Rights Commission as something akin to the US Justice Department: an instrument for executing policy and administering and enforcing law. But that’s not what the Human Rights Commission is. The Justice Department is part of an administrative hierarchy, backed up by the sovereign authority of the federal government; the UNHRC can’t be like this, given the manifest lack of a world government. So what is it? I’d suggest that UNHRC is more like a jury, in the way that Tocqueville describes juries functioning: they are (ideally) little laboratories or schoolrooms where people learn how to deliberate, how to exercise popular sovereignty, and so forth. The point? The Justice Department directs its efforts outward, at people not in the Justice Department, and can be evaluated based on how well it affects their actions. But UNHRC is also directed inwards, and can provide an opportunity to socialize its members. Making an excellent human rights record a condition of membership would deprive the organization or its successor of that possibility.

[Parenthetically, I have no idea whether or not anyone has actually tried this strategy, or whether it has worked. But what I do know is that shifting to a Council of the Putatively Virtuous Democracies would eliminate the possibility of using this kind of strategy.]

Fifth, Dan suggests that international organizations are supposed to create clear standards, and human rights abusers can’t be trusted to create such standards and effectively monitor them. If we assume that “being a human rights abuser” is a dispositional quality of a regime, and that service on a Human Rights Commission can never affect the state serving, then this argument follows. In fact, something like this argument seems to animate the Task Force’s recommendations, although they give the dispositional quality a name — “democracy” — and use that as the criterion of membership on the proposed Council. I am not convinced by this argument, though, as it seems to be a sub-species of the Donatist argument I critiqued in my first post: that only the virtuous can do good things. I am very uncomfortable assigning the label “good” to any actor, whether an individual human being or an artificial person like a state; I am much more comfortable assigning that label to specific actions. And in my experience actors of all kinds are capable of all kinds of actions, good and bad alike.

I am also reminded of the fact that George Bush the Elder appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court, and that Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to be Chief Justice. Neither move worked out particularly well for the Republican Party. The moral of the story, I think, is that actors can change. And I think that this is especially important if they are being placed in a position where rhetorical coercion can be most effectively applied. I think UNCHR fits.

Finally, Dan notes that “it is very difficult for citizens of liberal democracies to take those rules seriously when they compare their own records to those of the states that sit in positions of judgement.” Granted. I am just not at all confident that establishing a Council composed of democracies which are definitionally advocates of human rights will make it any easier to do this. The charge of hypocrisy has no logical merit, although it has political efficacy in many situations; the current culture of personal purity in American politics, where people can be forced to leave public office because of an extramarital affair [which baffles me, given a) the statistics on extramarital affairs in the United States in general, and b) the fact that whether a person is sleeping with someone other than her or his spouse tells me nothing whatsoever about whether that person is a good choice to run the country. Case in point: FDR. ‘Nuff said], certainly increases the likelihood that citizens of the US will make precisely the argument you mention as a way of shielding themselves from accusations of human rights abuse. But is this likely to be any different under the Task Force’s proposal? I’d submit that the situation will get worse.

This brings me to my last point. From the general tenor of Dan’s response, I infer that his major concern in thinking about the Task Force’s recommendations is what the implications of the proposed changes will be for the promotion of global human rights. Although I share that concern, I have to be honest that it is not my most important consideration when thinking about this issue. Human rights violations are terrible things, but even worse, I’d posit, is a self-righteous United States of America standing astride the world firmly convinced that it is acting according to the dictates of Right and Truth. What bothers me about such a situation is that there is virtually no effective way to oppose such an empire, since it monopolizes both capabilities and justifications; fanatics are dangerous, and fanatics with massive military machines and nuclear weapons are even more dangerous. And in the case of the United States, we are confronted with the basic historical fact that the United States has always thought of itself as divinely justified. As long as no one else affirms this, some breathing room can be bought. But if we institutionalize this principle of divine election, how then could any effective opposition be mounted?

Countries are not virtuous. Politics should not be about virtue. And trying to eliminate the evil other — fighting what Andreas, in a Schmittian mode, referred to as the “Liberal War Against Politics” — is in my view likely to lead to even greater disasters in the future. I just can’t reconcile myself to a policy that would give even more symbolic ammunition to those who would claim the mantle of divine favor for the United States.

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A Response to Patrick Jackson

I’ve thought about Patrick’s post, “The Uses of Hypocrisy”, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot agree with the interesting arguments he puts forth. I share some of his concerns about the proposal for a “Human Rights Council,” but I think he gets the effect of having gross abusers of human rights on the UN Human Rights Commission exactly backwards.

1. Gross human-rights abusers are unlikely to be “shamed” because of their presence on the UN Human Rights Commission. They are more likely to interpret being elected to the Commission as evidence that their human rights abuses are insufficient to stigmatize them. Indeed, the optimal process for “rhetorical coercion” would be the following: (1) a state attempts to become a member of the Commission, (2) its potential membership garners widespread opposition because of its record on human rights, and (3) it loses the vote for membership.

2. In this respect, Patrick’s arguments might actually favor the establishment of a more restrictive “Human Rights Council.” First, because being excluded from membership would be a strong signal of condemnation for human rights abuses. Second, because it would focus much more scrutiny on those states that do become members. Since the obvious criticism of a “democracies” club is that membership would be based on the political interests of countries like the United States, there would be more pressure on the Human Rights Council to defend its membership criteria, as well as for members to get their act together in order to avoid those kinds of criticisms.

3. Patrick conflates membership on the Commission with “voice opportunity.” Certainly even human-rights abusers ought to participate in debates about the scope, nature, and importance of various political and economic freedoms. Yet it is not clear that denying them a position on the body responsible for enforcing and monitoring human-rights abuses is tantamount to denying them a voice on those matters. They retain the right to speak in the General Assembly and other institutional venues, as well as in non-institutional diplomatic and public arenas. There should be a higher criteria for membership in specialized organs whose job is to pursue specialized tasks.

4. I am unconvinced by Patrick’s argument that states that gross human-rights abusers can effectively monitor or enforce human-rights abuse. Liberals rightfully question whether John Ashcroft should’ve been put in charge of protecting American liberties. They correctly note that an administration whose policy directives either condone or suggest torture cannot be trusted to investigate or stop prisoner abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Guantanamo Bay. The same logic applies even more so to continuing a system that allowed Libya to chair the Human Rights Commission, as it did in 2003. (Indeed, the continued obscenities committed by the Libyan regime suggest any “shaming” impact was marginal, at best).

5. What this comes down to, in some respects, is the function that organizations such as the UNCHR and its related treaties and covenants serve. One of those functions is to create clearer definitions of when a country is in compliance or in noncompliance with a set of principles – whether nonproliferation, open markets, or human rights. If we are ever to have even reasonably clear standards to monitor and enforce, we cannot give gross human-rights abusers the right to sit on the Commission. Doing so vitiates those standards.

6. Finally, such situations make it harder to use “rhetorical coercion” against relatively clean democracies, such as the US. They undermines the arguments of third parties – whether the UN or NGOs – when they refer to the obligations laid out by the UN and relevant international law. For good reason, it is very difficult for citizens of liberal democracies to take those rules seriously when they compare their own records to those of the states that sit in positions of judgement.

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The Uses of Hypocrisy

The bipartisan Congressional Task Force on the United Nations has released its findings in the form of a report entitled “American Interests and UN Reform.” Among the report’s many recommendations — including many with which I completely agree, such as empowering the Secretary-General to replace top UN officials, and the creation of an Independent Oversight Board to audit UN programs — comes the following dramatic proposal: eliminate the UN Human Rights Commission, because it has betrayed its founding mission by permitting members who abuse human rights.

So distorted has the 53-member Human Rights Commission become that countries with appalling, even monstrous, human rights records—Sudan, Syria, Zimbabwe, Libya, and Cuba, to name a few—could all be seated there. Today the government of Sudan—even as it oversees the perpetration of genocide on its own soil—is serving its second consecutive term on the commission!

Instead of the UN Human Rights Commission, the Task Force recommends that the United States move towards the creation of a democracies-only Human Rights Council, which would operate more or less outside of the UN system to promote human rights:

… until the United Nations holds its members accountable for their failure to observe well-established human rights norms, the United Nations is not the best forum for the proposed Human Rights Council. Human rights are best promoted by states that themselves respect the human and political rights of their own citizens. Democratic governments that recognize the equal freedom of all citizens offer the best protection of human rights and the best examples in “state practice” in terms of customary international law on the protection of human rights. Historically, they have also been the most forceful and effective proponents of the extension of human and political rights and the end of their abuse.

The upshot of these recommendations is to suggest something like the following position: only “good” (read: democratic) countries can and should say anything about human rights; other countries should keep their criticisms to themselves, or become democracies.

This is a very problematic position in several respects.

First of all, the notion that only “good” people/countries/organizations can and should be able to say things about human rights strikes me as a morally questionable stance. Indeed, it reminds me (but probably doesn’t remind any of you … at least not yet) of an important episode in the early Christian church that pitted Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, against the Donatists. At issue: the question of whether someone had to be in a “state of grace” to administer sacraments like baptism and communion. The Donatists maintained that you did; Augustine disagreed, pointing out that no human being was actually ever in a state of grace, since all were sinners, and so insisting on purity would mean that there would never be any sacraments whatsoever.

The point here is that whether an act is good, or whether an argument is justified, has nothing to do with the characteristics of the speaker and everything to do with the qualities of the act itself. Libya or Cuba or even Sudan might be violating human rights, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify any arguments they might make about someone else violating human rights, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be unable to help monitor human rights norms. (They might be unwilling to do so, but that brings me to my next point — see below.) Logic 101 teaches that we should avoid ad hominem and tu quoque arguments in which the personal characteristics of the speaker are introduced as valid criticisms of a position; the same principle applies here.

Being on the UN Human Rights Commission isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a reward for being virtuous. Instead, being on the UN Human Rights Commission, and the very existence of a UN Human Rights Commission in the first place, is a kind of public organizational declaration in favor of human rights — a tangible symbol of a set of normative and conventional commitments. And the existence of such a symbol sets up the possibility of shaming countries into adhering to those norms and conventions — one can hold them accountable by pointing out the discrepancy between their overt commitments and their individual practices. “You should be upholding human rights — you’re on the Human Rights Commission!” is an argument without logical strength, but with a great deal of political strength, since no one likes being called a hypocrite.

La Rouchefoucauld’s famous dictum that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue” seems relevant here. Saying one thing and doing another reinforces the value of the principle that you profess, since you are still making a special effort to declare your agreement with it. Such hypocrisy also opens the door for some third party to call you on the conflict between your principles and your actions, and thus (in a sense) rhetorically coerce you by pointing out the gap between what you say and what you do. The power of such a political strategy comes directly from the fact that the target of the strategy has publicly assented to the principle in question; if I’ve never declared myself to be a supporter of human rights, then your accusation that I’m not upholding human rights norms doesn’t seem quite as pointed a criticism.

The Task Force’s recommendation to scrap the UN Human Rights Commission eliminates this potential strategy of social and political influence. But the problem is compounded by their recommendation to produce a “coalition of the virtuous,” so to speak, as a way of pressing for greater adherence to human rights norms. Now human rights violators will be faced with the condemnation of a club to which they do not belong, rather than being admonished to live up to a set of principles that they profess to value. Since the strategy of rhetorical coercion via shaming is no longer available, this new Human Rights Council will in all likelihood find itself reduced to exhorting violators to find their way back to the True Faith — or authorizing the use of force in an effort to force these rogue states to be free and civilized and democratic. (I think we’ve heard this someplace before, haven’t we?)

To make matters worse, declaring that a Human Rights Council composed of democracies will be a better instrument for promoting human rights norms presumes that democracies do not violate human rights. This is patently untrue. I am deeply skeptical about a human rights promotion infrastructure which would, in effect, organizationally link “democracy” and “human rights” in such a way as to make it harder to accuse a democracy of human rights violations: “we’re on the Human Rights Council! Don’t accuse us of violating human rights; look at those non-democracies over there, and the bad things they are doing to their citizens. Sure, we make mistakes from time to time, but we’re <democracies, and thus closer to perfection than others.” It’s the sheer hubris of the claim that bothers me.

In sum, the Task Force proposes to replace the existing system where you don’t have to be in a state of grace to make pronouncements about human rights with a system in which only those presumed to be in a state of grace are empowered to speak on the subject. Doing so would virtually eliminate the strategy of rhetorical coercion via shaming, thus leaving us with blunter forms of coercion as the only way to promote human rights norms. At the same time, the new system would reinforce an illusion that doesn’t need any reinforcing, since it’s already doing quite well on its own: the illusion that democracy, like cleanliness, is near to godliness. The recommendation strikes me as a bad idea all around, both for what it will do to inter-state relations and for what it will do to the already inflated egos of the Coalition of the Putatively Virtuous Democracies.

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